TAMING THE EXODUS
VENICE, Italy, May 11, 2016 – Ever since a Franco-German project welded
together nations quite diverse in culture and mentality their creation, the European Union, has
struggled to level national differences and impose common regulations often more apt for a
wealthier and more disciplined North then the more loosely run and poorer South of the continent.
The Union hobbled along, often on shaky crutches - like its debt bailout of
Greece - until millions of desperate Muslim refugees from a war-torn Middle East, Far East and
Africa forced their way into Europe by road, rail and sea in search of safety and or a better life.
The mass immigration of some five million refugees now in Europe is blamed
on America’s sledgehammer anti-terrorist policy in the Middle East. The invasion has strained the
Union’s cohesion, its lofty principles of racial, ethnic and religious tolerance as well as its most
important accomplishment of open borders. Worse, the ever growing number has erased the
compassion of Europeans with the plight of the displaced. Today open hatred and fear has
converted the refugee crisis into the biggest challenge to European unity, threatening to split the
Union between those member nations who want the migration stopped, never mind how, and those
who argue a solution must be found on humanitarian grounds.
At the same time a popular credo grows that Europe’s greatest post-war calamity
was caused ‘deliberately’ by United States adventurism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
European pundits argue by drawing the Union into the ‘war against terror’ and consequently making
it the main recipient of those replaced by those wars the U.S. weakened, and possibly destroyed, the
European Union which together with its currency, the Euro, had become an assertive competitor in the
global economy. With the Union weakened the U.S. is now negotiating a Free Trade Treaty with
Europe giving U.S. goods and produce free access to the Union’s markets.
Critics blame America’s gun-ho war policy which caused authoritarian but functional
national governments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya to be replaced by bloody and brutal civil
and religious wars. The wars forced some ten million people in the region to flee their homes and seek
refuge abroad, with the dream destination Europe.
Initially welcomed as war victims the avalanche of ragged war-scared and
war-scarred humanity soon became a ticking time bomb for European governments. Their popularity
declined as rightwing parties busily stoked popular fear the Muslim newcomers would erode the
welfare state (mainly pensions, free education and medical care) take away jobs, undermine
European culture and make the continent unsafe.
The ensuing anti-migrant phobia was fueled by terrorist attacks and plots in
London, Paris and Brussels even though none of the terrorists were immigrants but second and third
generation Muslims reared and educated in Europe but often marginalized and left to their own
cultures in Arab-dominated ghettoes located in major European cities like Paris and Brussels.
To these outsiders living on the inside Europeans became the enemy, the infidel. Not
unexpectedly their idol became the radical Caliphate cult, ISIS. Thousands of European-born and
brought up Muslims flocked to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to fight for ISIS.
With thousands of refugees arriving daily and the fear of more terror it was no surprise
fascist-style parties in Europe suddenly mushroomed and rapidly gained at ballot boxes. European
Union members like Poland and Hungary have voted in extreme rightwing and racist governments.
East Europeans, freed from the yoke of communism and embraced by the European Union, turned
out to be the fiercest migrant bashers refusing to adhere to Union quotas for taking in refugees.
Afraid the migrant paranoia would cast them out of office the governments of the European
Union offered Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan billions of Euros to keep the
wave of refugees housed and fed in Turkey rather then allow them to cross to Greece and from there
wander north by bus, rail or on foot to the western paradises of Austria, Germany, France, Britain and
the Scandinavian countries (where Denmark has already decided to accept ‘not one more refugee.’)
Turning Turkey into a receiving camp for an expected wave of another five million
refugees has sparked a wave of indignation among those Europeans who consider Erdogan’s
Turkey a dictatorship trampling on the human rights of its own people and certain to treat refugees no
better, even worse. They also feel the Turkish strongman can blackmail Europe for more money or
concessions by closing or opening the refugee floodgate.
The Turkish solution has cut the route to Europe through the Balkans where countries
like Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Hungary had built barbed wire fences along borders,
some 175 kms long and had used dogs and riot gas to keep refugees out. The spectacle of
desperate men women and children crashing against barbed wire and running for their lives was a
daily TV item until suddenly it was no longer aired.
Today Turkey already acts as a paid-barricade to Europe.
Now the alternate highway into Europe is via Libya, victim of a vicious civil war between
armed gangs and with an escalating presence of ISIS. Just across from Libya is Italy with its long
Mediterranean coastline, for years the destination of refugees arriving in patched up rubber boats or
aged fishing vessels foundering offshore. A lively human trade soon developed between People
Smugglers in Libya and the Italian Mafia trading cheap labor and prostitution. For years Italy’s rural
highways have been lined with ladies of the night, most of them Africans.
In this refugee nightmare there are bright moments, like little Lebanon (population
five million) offering shelter to 1.5 million Syrian refugees (added to already half a million Palestinian
refugees in Lebanon) Germany housing and feeding also 1.5 million displaced people or the small
Italian island of Lampedusa rescuing and temporarily housing shipwrecked refugees over the last
For some time now the Italian government has complained the Union is not helping
Italy ‘financially’ to face the brunt of a migrant influx from Libya, a phenomenon blown out these days
as the Mediterranean turned into the main passage to Europe. The Union (squeezed for more money
by Turkey already) retaliated telling Italy to regulate the invasion rather then allow refugees free train
rides (and pocket money) to go north and cross the borders to Austria, France, Germany and
The standoff between Italy and its northern neighbors (which prompted an Austrian
menace to close the vital Brenner Pass over the Alps) headed for an unlikely solution this week with a
project elaborated by Milena Gabanelli, host of Italy’s most popular news program ‘Report.’
Gabanelli, a much esteemed voice against corruption, abuse and official misuse of
power, proposed to the Presidency of the European Union that the funds destined for Turkey be used
to create refugee camps serviced by European educators, doctors and social workers at dozens of
disused but still functional Italian military barracks. Using weeks of investigation with her team she
showed barrack after empty barrack, some in pristine conditions, all idle. In an interview the European
Union promised to support the scheme if the Italian government agreed. But the government has
remained silent, influenced apparently by a military unwilling to lose their empty barracks or, more
likely, evaluating ‘gain and loss’ in a world that is all about making money – even off refugees.
The scheme is to house, feed, educate and classify the refugees by Italian and European
staff. This would create new jobs in Europe, renovate new facilities and offer control over the millions
awaiting displaced person status and asylum - and the millions yet to come. It would allow the Union to
monitor human rights and separate bona fide war refugees from ‘opportunistic’ economic migrants
from countries not at war. It also might stop tens of thousands of refugees wandering through Italian
cities or in other parts of Europe begging for alms and food as they make their way north or take up a
gypsy like existence.
According to recent surveys seventy per cent of the newcomers pushing into Europe or
who are already in Europe are economic ‘refugees’ and could be held in camps at infinitum until they
return home voluntarily. (ends)
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He is the author
of four books, all available on www. amazon.com